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Climbing Equipment Tips

Equipment You Wear
Equipment You Carry



A helmet is absolutely the number one, most important piece of equipment to own and use. It protects the skull not only from falling rocks or dropped gear, but also from impact against the cliff if a climber should fall and swing. A helmet should fit snugly and comfortably, but should also be adjustable enough to fit a hat underneath. Modern advances in technology have made helmets super lightweight, so "it's too heavy" can no longer be a valid excuse for not wearing one. Buy one and get used to wearing it when you climb. Think of it as your cranial insurance policy. Pick one up for about $75.


In the early days of climbing, a rope around the waist with a secure knot was good enough. Not so anymore. Today's climber uses a seat harness, consisting of a waist belt and two leg loops. It is safer and more comfortable than the "old style."

When selecting a harness, comfort is the biggest concern. Padding in both the leg loops and waist belt is worth a few extra bucks when you're hanging on the rope. Don't worry about adjustable leg loops; just make sure you try on the harness with the bulkiest clothes you'll wear climbing. Quick-release buckles holding up the back of the leg loops are a nice feature when nature calls. An independent belay loop connecting the fronts of the leg loops and waist belt make attachment of carabiners (aluminum snap links) quick and convenient. A top-of-the-line harness should run less than $100.


Many climbs can be done in hiking or approach shoes, but specialized rock shoes make the job easier and more fun. There are a dozen shoe manufacturers and four times as many models to choose from. The number of variables are reduced once a type of shoe is selected. The beginning climber needs an all-around shoe: something that does a little of everything. This shoe will perform moderately well in all conditions, be stiff enough to support a beginner's weaker toes, and be comfortable when worn all day. In the store, the shoe should be tight enough to allow for later stretching, but not overly painful. The best stores have a climbing wall to test the shoes. A careful climber will spend most of her equipment-purchasing time trying on shoes; don't be in a rush. Buyer beware of the mail-order sale shoe without first trying it on! Expect to pay between $100 and $150.


Rope Construction

Modern safety ropes may look like other ropes, but actually have special distinctions. A climber's rope has a kernmantle construction: a soft and supple nylon sheath, usually multi-colored, protects the real "working" part-- the braidedcore. Of the two types of kernmantle ropes-- dynamic and static-- only the former is used in climbing applications. As implied by the name, a dynamic rope stretches, lessening impact on both the climber and her equipment. A climber won't use a static rope because the lack of stretch creates too much force on a safety system, creating dangerous and painful results.


There are more types of kernmantle ropes than choices of ice cream combos at Baskin Robbins. Among the options are length, diameter, "dryness" coatings, and even color. Many ropes are constructed in Europe, so dimensions are listed using the metric system.

The most popular length is 50 m (165 ft.) and many climbing routes are set up using this standard. A shorter rope is not very useful; a longer rope is a specialty item usually not practical for most rock climbing applications.

The thickness or diameter of the rope is the main factor in durability and strength. An 11 mm diameter rope is most commonly found at the local crag and will suit most climbers just fine. Skinnier ropes are lighter, but shaving a few pounds is not usually worth the sacrifice in wear resistance.

"Dry" coatings are only important in snowy or icy conditions where the rope may absorb water and become heavy or even frozen. A standard or non-dry rope will be perfect for rock climbing in most conditions. Buy the more expensive dry rope when you start climbing frozen waterfalls.

As unimportant as color may seem, it will play a factor when rappelling (sliding down the rope to get to the bottom of a cliff) with two ropes. More and more ropes are being constructed with a sheath that is bicolored; each half has a different pattern. This is a fancy feature that allows a climber to quickly locate the center of the rope (an important point when rappelling) or be able to estimate the amount of unused rope at a glance.

The Bottom Line

Consider all choices carefully. Buying a rope can turn out to be like buying a car-- there are always bells and whistles that bump up the price tag. All the ropes are strong enough to catch a falling climber. Be sure to check that the rope is approved by the UIAA (the international union that oversees climbing equipment standards). A 50 m long, 11 mm diameter standard rope can be purchased for under $150.


The most expensive has been left for last. Every climber always needs another piece of gear, so don't expect to buy everything at first. Just the essentials are enough for now.

A belay device catches a fallen climber on the rope and allows rappelling by bending the rope. The most versatile is the tube device. It is lightweight and simple to use. A shopper shouldn't pay over $20 for one.

The carabiner or biner is the staple of a climber's hardware. The biner is the connecting link for each part of the safety system and can be opened or closed as needed. The two main variations are locking and non-locking. Locking biners are for especially critical areas, such as the belay device or your personal tether to the anchor, and have a screw-mechanism that prevents opening of the gate. A starter kit requires four "lockers" (about $9 each) and eight non-locking carabiners (about $5 each). It's a good idea to get at least onepear-shaped biner with a wider opening that makes belaying and rappelling easier. It should cost less then $20.

Slings or runners are strong pieces of nylon that span distances to anchors or protection pieces (solid points connecting the safety system). Runners hold thousands of pounds of force, but nonetheless require redundancy. As a result, several versatile runners should round out a beginner's gear collection. One-inch tubular webbing is easy to find and inexpensive (less than 50 cents per foot). One each of 30-ft, 20-ft, and 10-ft lengths should suffice for most starter situations.

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